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Aviators set out around the world

Aviators set out around the world

Bay Area trio attempt

By Sean Holstege
STAFF WRITER

In the spirit of Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh, three Bay Area pilots are setting out today to become the first to circle the globe in a Cessna, and they're flying into the wind.

The flight could break 39 world records and will start and end in Teterboro, N.J., after 70 hours and 22,860 nautical miles in the air, and 18 stops in 13 countries.

Along the way, the "World Flight" crew will land at the home of a former top-secret Soviet submarine base, where 15 years ago they would have been shot out of the sky. They will brave the tempestuous skies and isolation of the Bering Strait and North Atlantic and cross the Arabian Desert, all in a specially modified twin-engine jet that weighs little more than a fully loaded Humvee.

To Matt Brooks, the 52-year-old flight commander from San Francisco, pilot Fred Lohden, 62, of Oakland and San Ramon navigator Tim Weber, 32, the adventure is like a cross between a just-for-the-fun-of-it road trip and a thrill of the challenge.

"How cool is it to fly around the world with a bunch of guys you like?" said Brooks, who owns the 26-year-old Cessna 501 Citation. "I never thought I could do something like this or ever have the opportunity to even try it."

But when he bought the plane 11/2 years ago and started planning a trip to Europe, one thing led to another.

"A friend said, 'If you do that, why not take it to Africa?' I looked at the map and said, 'Hell, why not take it around the world?'" Brooks recalled.

Then, Garrett Aviation Services offered to modify the wings to be more fuel efficient, and Williams International, a Michigan firm, agreed to put in two new high-performance engines. By the time Houston-based Universal Weather and Aviation Inc. chipped in navigation and logistical help, the Bay Area men were on their way to a record attempt. What started as a lark became an earnest effort last September.

The modifications improve the fuel efficiency, lift, airspeed and range of the small corporate jet so much that the crew felt it could not only comfortably become the first in its weight class to circle Earth, but could do it going the wrong way. Such expeditions generally fly east to take advantage of the Northern Hemisphere's jet stream as a tailwind.

The biggest challenge will be attentiveness and weight. The team ripped out all the seats and will pack only bottled water and such dried foods as granola bars, powdered soup, oatmeal and peanut butter and crackers.

The crew will take turns flying the plane in four-hour shifts. Some legs of the trip will last five hours, but the crew hopes to be on the ground no more than an average 20 minutes. Some fuel, a quick inspection, a check of the electronic maps -- paper ones weigh too much -- and it's back in the air for another 1,500 miles to New Delhi or Bangkok or Warsaw at a cruising altitude of around 40,000 feet.

"Our biggest challenge is over water where we don't have many options. We're flying over Siberia where there are no places to land. From Nome to Petropavlovsk we are at the mercy of the plane," said Lohden. "If something goes wrong -- yikes."

Just in case, there is an inflatable rubber dinghy and life vests. But these guys are old pros. Among them they have logged at least 30,000 flying hours and have flown for a combined total of almost 95 years. Lohden, who like Weber flew for commercial jetliners and now works as a NASA aviation analyst, is matter-of-fact about the risks.

"I've been flying 35 years. Once we lift off, it's business for me. I want to make sure everything is working well," the Oakland pilot said.

"I don't think any of our sponsors would want to put their names on the side of the plane if this wasn't well thought through," said Brooks, who thinks logistics and careful planning are the biggest challenges.

Even late last week, World Flight was still getting Polish permits.

"Nothing is certain, and things can go wrong, but we've designed a flight plan that's well within my risk quotient," Brooks said. "We're not being foolhardy. All of us are conservative by nature and this is a conservative plan."

That means most legs of the trip are closer to 1,500 miles than the 2,000-mile range, and there are plenty of redundant landing sites in case the World Flight team has to deviate from its plan.

Along the way they will be tracked by three technical teams monitoring their progress around the clock, while they will -- unlike Earhart -- avoid getting lost by following electronic maps and global positioning systems.

The Citation isn't much bigger than early aviators' planes. Like them, Lohden, Weber and Brooks will have to keep a close eye on wind, fuel consumption, range and any mechanical malfunction that could cut the trip short.

"I'm a little intimidated to think I could have the possibility to set a world record in aviation. It's an honor, because I'm just an ordinary guy," said Brooks, a lawyer by training -- a lawyer who reads Lindbergh biographies.

Contact Sean Holstege at sholstege@angnewspapers.com